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Reconceiving Noise and Music through Power with its Political and Social Ontology (Berlin, 2022)

Reconceiving Noise and Music through Power with its Political and Social Ontology

Noise, in its intrinsic constitution, transcends the mere auditory manifestation of sound; it frequently manifests in heightened decibels, embodies an unsettling timbre, amalgamates dissonant frequencies, or emerges as an uncanny sonic aberration. Moreover, the conceptual realm of noise isn’t solely demarcated by its audiological attributes. Instead, it is often delineated, even ostracised, by prevailing power structures and their instrumentalities. In this treatise, I endeavour to dissect the genesis of noise within its historical and socio-cultural matrices, postulating its ontology through an intricate examination of music, culture, and the dynamics of power.

1.1 Introduction: Deciphering the Semiotics of Noise

The conceptualisation of noise, while rooted in its audiological essence, often veers more decisively towards its political, sociological, and psychological dimensions. In fact, noise, in its intricate ontology, eludes any unidimensional definition devoid of its cultural matrix and contextual references. However, in the contemporary sociocultural landscape, the delineation, characterisation, and classification of noise as an intrusive auditory phenomenon seldom pivots on its inherent sonic properties. Instead, such classification often emerges and is indeed labelled as “noise,” from the dictates of the reigning power apparatus. This phenomenon can arguably be interpreted through the lens of power dynamics and their inexorable inclination towards societal control, dominance, and orchestration of order. This predilection was historically epitomised by religious institutions leading up to the late 18th-century Enlightenment and subsequently by governmental apparatuses in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and throughout the epoch of late modernity.

Positioned by the dominant narratives, noise perennially emerges as the sonic manifestation of the “other” – the extraneous, the undesired. It becomes emblematic of auditory elements perceived as disruptive, perturbing, and dissonant. The zealous endeavours of power, via institutions like government-funded cultural custodians, ensuring the preservation of “acceptable” sonic terrains, and linguistic associations safeguarding linguistic purity, among others, have consistently aimed to demarcate and tame noise. This is realised not merely through legislative frameworks but also via executive apparatuses. Noise thus becomes not only a categorised entity but also an instrument for censure and adjudication. In light of these analytical, yet pragmatically grounded assertions, noise has perennially occupied a pivotal position in the schema of power dynamics. Managing noise transcends the auditory realm, reflecting an aspiration to modulate societal polyphony and pluralism. Consequently, the endeavour to classify and tame noise, beyond its physiological implications, transcends mere aesthetic or medical motivations. It morphs into a politically charged intervention into the very ontology of noise, music, and sound.

1.2. The Interplay of Noise and Music

Music, akin to noise, defies unidimensional interpretation. Its essence is inseparable from the cultural, societal, and temporal matrices it emerges from, serving as a testament to a society’s collective memory, a confluence of intergenerational craft, expertise, and techniques inherited and refined over epochs.

Paralleling noise, the taxonomy of music transcends instinctual or empirical categorisations. Instead, it’s sculpted by the hegemonic paradigms of power, reflecting its overarching intent to orchestrate and modulate societal constructs.

Music, innately tethered to the domain of sound, might be ontologically and speculatively described as “organised sounds.” Yet, its narrative surpasses this simple definition. Throughout the annals of human history, music has evolved as an autonomous entity, simultaneously a tool of defiance and an instrument of solace, oscillating between serving as an emblem of emancipation and a salve for the soul. But music hasn’t eluded the gaze of power structures; it often finds itself ensnared, targeted for control and orchestration. Furthermore, music is often posited as the “anti-noise”, conceptualised as a restorative force that brings coherence from chaos, with chaos epitomised by the cacophony of unstructured noise. However, the power dynamics seek to harness music as an instrument, delineating the permissible from the proscribed, effectively demarcating the realms of music and noise — the celebrated versus the chaotic, the ordered versus the anarchic. Yet, it’s pivotal to acknowledge that music’s roots are intertwined with noise. It isn’t merely an antithesis or a sanitised version of noise but a continuum of sonic experiences. The tension between music and noise might, therefore, be rooted in their historical trajectories and the evolving perceptions and valuations of each.

1.3. Noise: A Canalisation of Inherent Violence

Eminent 20th-century anthropologist Rene Girard postulated that early human cultural expressions, encompassing rites, rituals, and plays, functioned as conduits channelling intrinsic violence through acts of sacrifice. Absent such mechanisms, society would teeter on the brink of self-destruction, grappling with its innate violent propensities. This ritualistic sacrifice emerges from humanity’s quest for a scapegoat, a mechanism to externalise and collectively address societal frictions.

According to Jacques Attali, the realms of music and noise significantly shaped these processes of channelling violence. The paradigm involved identifying a scapegoat, attributing blame, and proceeding to either a literal or symbolic sacrifice. Music, a simulacrum of this scapegoat sacrifice, resonated on dual levels: firstly, equating noise with violence due to its disruptive nature, and secondly, conceptualising music as a refined channelisation of this noise, a sonic sublimation. This dualism frames noise as an act of disturbance — an act akin to murder — and music as an emblem of societal coherence and political integration.

To understand noise’s transformation into structured sonic entities, it is paramount to study it in the context of primitive societies, preceding and accompanying the study of the resulting musical artefact. Attali’s thesis suggests that the foundational dichotomy between music and noise germinated in these primitive societies, with rituals and rites embodying this dichotomy. The noise became emblematic of violence, a symbol of rage. While in its raw form, noise could be physiologically abrasive, its societal implications extended beyond mere auditory discomfort. Contrarily, music was lauded as a harmonious, therapeutic symphony, with luminaries across fields celebrating it as an art form that finds beauty amidst the cacophony. Leibniz’s perspective on music underscores this duality: while composers often weave dissonance and harmony to evoke varied emotions, music ultimately restores order.

Music’s primordial significance, and its role as a preserver of order against noise, make it a tantalising object of power’s desire. Music thus becomes, in Attali’s words, a simulacrum of the “monopolisation of the power to kill”. Just like power, music radiates from a singular centre, influencing both its direct recipients and the broader societal milieu. At this nexus of music, sacrifice, and violence, Attali discerns the emergence of Music within the contours of Political Economy.

Music not only mirrors societal structure but actively delineates order from chaos. The dichotomies of harmony/dissonance, order/chaos, and authenticity/duplicity become manifest in the power dynamics of society. Given music’s pivotal role in establishing societal norms, it inevitably attracts the gaze of the dominant echelons, seeking to control and modulate its influence.

Attali, elucidating this intertwining of music and politics, posits that music signifies the viability of societal order. It mimics social paradigms, with its harmonies mirroring societal norms. Thus, any debate regarding the existence of a universal musical code is intrinsically political, as it gestures towards the possibility of a natural societal order. Music’s essence, suffused with collective human memories and societal legacy, thus becomes a beacon for power structures. Its ability to delineate order from chaos (noise) renders it a focal point for power. By harnessing music, power inevitably characterises noise as the anomalous, the discordant “other”. Attali’s underlying assertion is that music, across historical epochs, has been a potent tool for the ruling class, instrumental in maintaining societal equilibrium. The governance of music, and by extension, the regulation of noise, remains crucial for any authority seeking societal order. This historical trajectory, originating from prehistoric rituals and resonating in contemporary dynamics, underscores the perpetual tension between order (music) and chaos (noise).

1.4. Interplay of Power, Noise, and Music

The streets, with their ambient sounds and cacophonies, present an intriguing tableau for the exercise of power and control. They emerge not merely as thoroughfares but as arenas of contestation, and stages where dominant ideologies are performed and propagated. Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis offers an illuminating perspective on this dynamic interplay, positing street music and musicians within the sphere of governmental influence: “The government could greatly improve the street music of Paris and exert a powerful influence on the direction of the moral pleasures ambulant musicians procure for the people. This is its duty. For a very modest recompense, it would have in its pay a considerable number of musicians equipped with always well-tuned instruments, who would only play good music… Instead of singing about being drunk on wine and the pleasures of the brute passions, the people would hear praise for the love of labour, sobriety, economy, charity, and above all the love of humanity.” This early articulation of regulating street music underscores the potential for streets to be wielded, even weaponised, as conduits for disseminating governmental ideologies, hegemonies, and authority. Attali succinctly remarks on Fétis’ views, stating: “That is what they wanted to do to popular music in 1835. It says everything there is to be said: about aesthetics and political control, about the rerouting of popular music toward the imposition of social norms.”

Drawing from Attali’s discourse on Fétis’ proposition, it becomes evident that aesthetics has historically served as a vehicle for political oversight, with music becoming an instrument to enforce societal conformities. Streets, in this paradigm, emerge not merely as physical spaces but as ideological battlegrounds where the ruling echelons seek to imprint their hegemony, not least by modulating its auditory landscape.

Against the backdrop of noise, music crystallises as a symbol of order, a beacon in the midst of chaos. In essence, humans have sculpted noise, transmuting it into the structured entity known as music. This transformation, seized upon by instruments of power for its profound influence on the human psyche, found expression in rites, rituals, and communal celebrations, serving as a mechanism of control. “With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read that: codes of life, the relations among men. Clamour, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony; when it is fashioned by the man with specific tools when it invades man’s time when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream—Music,” asserts Attali. This nuanced understanding of noise’s transformation and its subsequent regulation has, from time immemorial, remained a pivotal tool in the arsenal of power, aiding in the maintenance of societal order and dominance.

2.1. Noise: An Interstice of Culture and Politics

The multifaceted construct of noise, as delineated and expounded upon in preceding sections, serves not only as an auditory phenomenon but also as an instrument to architect communities and foster artificial cultural and state frameworks tailored to specific needs. This orchestration isn’t anchored merely in the ‘sonic’ facets of noise but envelops its historically entrenched cultural, sociological, political, and economic dimensions. The intellectual and political vanguards have strategically wielded noise as an apparatus to delineate societal binaries, demarcating orthodoxy from heterodoxy in realms spanning religion, language, and even ethnicity. By meticulously curating which auditory expressions are permissible, political power can stifle societal progress, truncate cultural expression, and inhibit communal practices. This tactical use of noise also serves to sever societies from their historical moorings, arresting cultural continuity—a phenomenon that can be tantamount to cultural genocide.

Walter Ong, chronicling the tumultuous evolution of Western Culture as it transitioned from an oral to a visual paradigm, underscores the indispensability of culture. He accentuates the cultural mediums—folkloric songs, dances, fairy tales, laments, lullabies, poems, etc.—that have historically facilitated the transgenerational transmission of human survival skills and crafts. Yet, this fragile tapestry of cultural legacy is often perceived as a subversive force by reigning power structures. It’s construed as a threat owing to its inherent capacity to encapsulate the entirety of human diversity. This very “diversity”, often deemed an asset in holistic societal paradigms, becomes a conundrum for powers intent on sustaining control, maintaining order, and preserving extant social matrices. Within such frameworks, minorities exemplify this diversity. However, from the vantage of dominant power structures, these minorities are frequently othered, cast as “strangers” or the proverbial “other.”

Historically, these minorities, ensnared in the role of societal “anti-heroes,” are recurrently targeted for assimilation, often subjected to rehabilitative measures that presuppose inherent deviance in their traditional cultural practices.

2.2. Constructed Cultures: The Synthesis of Politics, Noise, and Music

In nations like Turkey, my homeland, where the edifice of the official ideology rests heavily upon national identity — underscored by symbols like official language, flag, national anthem, and other integral facets (explicitly articulated in the third article of the Turkish Constitution) — culture emerges as the linchpin for transmitting this ideology. Consequently, every cultural medium becomes instrumental for the governing power to imprint its authority.

The Republic of Turkey, tracing its legacy from the multi-national and multicultural tapestry of the Ottoman Empire, grappled with reimagining its societal structure post the Empire’s demise. This intricate process was not merely about grafting an artificially engineered culture onto the societal fabric but also involved erasing the pre-existing diversity of cultures. In this cultural metamorphosis, the dialectics of noise and music, and the interplay of order and chaos, manifest vividly.

Following the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey in 1923, a series of stringent legislations emerged. Among the earliest was the proscription of Kurdish folklore, language, and even nomenclature. As detailed, “The Kurdish language, traditional clothing, folklore and the use of Kurdish names were banned…” In this sweep, the rich tapestry of Kurdish culture — its folklore, myths, music, and narratives — was relegated to the fringes, echoing the fate of other marginalised communities like the Armenians, Jews, and Rums. Here, the sounds of these cultures were transmuted into the discord of ‘noise’, while the music sanctioned by the state became emblematic of order and harmony.

The socio-cultural reconstruction of early Republic Turkey saw pivotal contributions from sociologists and the evocatively termed ‘society engineers’. Notable among them was Ziya Gökalp, dubbed the progenitor of Turkish Nationalism. Striving to create a cohesive national ethos in a land steeped in diversity, Gökalp championed a vision of a nation bound not by race or ethnicity but by shared education and ideals. He posited that “A nation is a group composed of men and women who have gone through the same education, and who have received the same acquisitions in language, religion, morality, and aesthetics.” Crucially, Gökalp viewed aesthetics not as an organic societal evolution but as a meticulously crafted construct. Such a philosophy found resonance in the distinction he drew between folkloric Turkish music and Ottoman music. He averred that the former arose spontaneously from the people while the latter was an imitative adaptation, thus delineating the contours of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’.

Gökalp’s nationalism, seeking a confluence of Turkish melodies with Western musical techniques, charted a roadmap for the musical evolution of Turkey. This included the nurturing of ‘national composers like the ‘Turkish Five’. Concurrently, Ottoman music faced systematic marginalisation and eventual proscription, making way for Western conservatories that catered to Turkey’s elite.

This exploration of Turkey’s cultural renaissance underscores the profound interplay of politics, noise, and music, elucidating how these elements contribute to nation-building. However, this phenomenon isn’t confined to Turkey. Nationalism in music, a pervasive theme from the mid-19th century through the Second World War, has seen luminaries like Leoš Janáček, Antonín Dvořák, and Carl Maria von Weber among others, use folkloric motifs as a celebration of national identity.

Martin Stokes delineates how musical nationalism aligns with the political ambitions of nationalist power, fostering a unity built on a shared ideology. Yet, as Stokes illustrates using Chopin’s transformation from an international composer to a symbol of Polish nationalism, these cultural markers are fluid, often reshaped by political narratives and power dynamics. The utilisation of music and sound, whether as instruments of political hegemony or as harbingers of liberation and diversity, remains a nuanced tapestry, forever woven into the fabric of society.

3.1. Deconstructing Noise and Its Potency

Within the cacophony of noise, we discern the inherent chaos that underscores human existence, facilitating our evolution and perseverance. Noise, with its intricate architecture, provides profound insights, not just into the ontology of humanity, but also into the enigmatic and often convoluted nexus between nature and human civilization. This complex dynamic inevitably beckons us to question the human tendency to diminish or marginalise noise, whether through evolutionary, political, or sociological paradigms. Such perceptions and interpretations of noise, along with the potential for humans to decipher the chaos that bestows upon us the ability to exist and comprehend, have been assiduously curtailed or, at the very least, audaciously sought to be curbed, spanning from primitive societies to our contemporary era.

Such an evolution, whilst casting noise in a historically disadvantaged light, accentuates the imperative to probe noise within its broader cultural, political, and economic milieu. A nuanced understanding of noise, despite historical prejudices against it, can furnish invaluable insights into socio-economic constructs, thereby enriching our appreciation of music and the broader paradigm of sound. Attali, echoing a similar sentiment, posits that: “In the codes that structure noise and its mutations, we glimpse a new theoretical practice and reading: establishing relations between the history of people and the dynamics of the economy on the one hand, and the history of the ordering of noise in codes on the other; predicting the evolution of one by the forms of the other; combining economics and aesthetics; demonstrating that music is prophetic and that social organisation echoes it.” Within this avant-garde theoretical framework as proposed by Attali, noise continues to present a fecund realm, beckoning comprehensive study and exploration.

3.2 Delving Deeper: Listening and Embracing the ‘Other’

“Can noise, as an aberrant auditory experience, furnish an avenue for engaging with the ‘other’, offering a fertile moment of exchange in the shaping of communal existence?” Brandon LaBelle inquires.

In this segment, I aim to reflect on Brandon LaBelle’s query regarding the potentiality of reconsidering noise as an instrument for embracing the unfamiliar, for grappling with the alien and the external. At the core of this inquiry lies the act of hearing, and subsequently listening, to sonic phenomena prior to their cultural, political, aesthetic, or social connotations. The act of hearing is an intricate process — an acoustic intrusion that undergoes a series of transformations, from ambiguous sound waves in the outer ear to amplified signals in the middle ear, culminating in their transmutation into electric impulses in the cochlea, eventually reaching the brain for interpretation.

Subsequent to this physiological process commences the intricate cerebral act of listening. Our interpretation of sound is intrinsically linked to an array of factors ranging from culture to evolutionary processes and from familial ties to linguistic constructs. Notably, developmental psychologist J.F. Werker’s research unveils that, during the initial six months of existence, infants are attuned to a myriad of phonemes, irrespective of their relevance to their native linguistic structure. During this period, they do not compartmentalise or hierarchies sound, nor do they dissect them based on their intrinsic properties like timbre or pitch. However, post this six-month threshold, infants start prioritising phonemes congruent with their native linguistic patterns, sidelining others, thereby sculpting a hierarchy of sounds. This metamorphosis underscores a transformation from a global auditory citizen to one bound by ethnolinguistic constraints. Against this backdrop, crafting a novel ethic or praxis of listening could pave the way for a more profound understanding of the ‘Other’, fostering egalitarian human relationships devoid of entrenched hierarchies. What might these renewed listening ethics encapsulate?

Drawing upon my native language, Turkish, the term ‘dinlemek’, denoting ‘to listen’, possesses a rich, albeit romantic, etymological lineage. Rooted in ‘tin’ (morphed to ‘d’ due to final-obstruent devoicing), which translates to ‘vibrate’ and ‘spirit’, ‘dinlemek’ in essence embodies the ‘vibration within the spirit’. This interpretation draws a direct link between the act of listening and the self, positioning both the emitter and the receiver of sound on an equal pedestal. Jean-Luc Nancy’s musings resonate with this sentiment, postulating listening as an intimate engagement with the self, a continuous reflection and self-referral, embodying the sound of sense itself. Recognising the egalitarian essence of listening, which bridges the sound source and its perceiver, becomes pivotal in fostering an understanding of unfamiliar sonic territories.

3.3 Epilogue

One of the most salient revelations stemming from the ontological exploration of noise is its innate propensity for metamorphosis, innovation, and genesis. Intriguingly, noise, in both its tangible and allegorical dimensions, envelops a spectrum of frequencies, variances, and existential oscillations. This rich tapestry of heterogeneity, resonance, potency, and the resultant abilities that noise can harness positions it uniquely within the sonic continuum. Given these characteristics, noise has perennially found itself under the scrutiny of societal power structures. Its definition, perception, and even its ostracisation have been continually influenced by reigning ideologies, from primordial civilisations to contemporary societies.

Furthermore, the intimate nexus between noise and music, in terms of their identification, definition, and utility, is undeniable. In a paradigm where noise symbolises chaos, music emerges as the embodiment of order and structured harmony. This intricate interplay between music and noise, coupled with their profound societal impact, highlights their historical utilisation as potent political instruments.

Frequently, noise has been invoked to delineate the ‘other’—the marginalised, the unfamiliar, the entities at variance with a society’s dominant ethos, often synonymous with minorities or perceived threats to a prevailing ideology. Conversely, music has been wielded, sometimes insidiously, to craft nationalistic identities and contrived cultural narratives.

Reflecting upon the myriad facets of noise and music, and their socio-political implications discussed herein, a recalibration of our understanding of listening emerges as pivotal. Such an introspection might very well be the compass guiding us towards envisioning a society marked by inclusivity, egalitarianism, and rich diversity.

Special Note of Appreciation: I wish to convey my sincere gratitude to my friend and esteemed colleague also professor, Tolga Tüzün. His writings and intellectual contributions have been a profound source of inspiration for me.


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